Books: Paradise Found

The Nobel Prize changed Toni Morrison's life but not her art, as her new novel proves

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And as an African-American woman, Morrison knew that some people would believe, even if they wouldn't say it out loud, that the notoriously inconsistent Swedish committee, often swayed by geopolitical rather than literary criteria, had given her the prize because of what she was rather than what she wrote. But Morrison shrugs off these suspicions, which have accompanied every upward step of her career. "When I heard I'd won," she says, "you heard no 'Aw, shucks' from me. The prize didn't change my inner assessment of what I'm capable of doing, but I welcomed it as a public, representational affirmation of my work. I was surprised at how patriotic I felt, being the first native-born American winner since Steinbeck in 1962. [Subsequent American laureates--Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky--emigrated to the U.S.] I felt pride that a black and a woman had been recognized in such an international forum."

The debate about where Morrison ranks among the other American laureates will probably simmer for years. Does she belong with Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck, authors whose earnest social concerns and novels now strike most critics and readers as passe? Some reviewers have found Morrison's novels overly deterministic, her characters pawns in the service of their creator's designs. Essayist Stanley Crouch says Morrison is "immensely talented. I just think she needs a new subject matter, the world she lives in, not this world of endless black victims." But for every pan, Morrison has received a surfeit of paeans: for her lyricism, for her ability to turn the mundane into the magical. In the Nobel sweepstakes at the moment, Morrison looks to be a lot closer to William Faulkner, whom many critics regard as this century's greatest American novelist, than to Buck and Steinbeck.

"Come Prepared or Not at All" appears on page 13 of Morrison's new novel, Paradise (Knopf; 318 pages; $25), her first since winning the prize. The curious and somehow ominous phrase that she stumbled across some six years ago, before her life grew exhaustingly complicated, has finally blossomed into a book published in a first printing of 400,000 copies. And Paradise was controversial even before it went on sale. Jump-the-gun reviews have ranged from the splenetic ("a clunky, leaden novel"--the New York Times) to the ecstatic ("the strangest and most original book that Morrison has written"--the New Yorker). Everyone who cares about contemporary fiction will doubtless be talking about Paradise, and not only because of the renown of its author. To read the novel is to be pulled into a passionate, contentious and sometimes violent world and to confront questions as old as human civilization itself.

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